Original Research

Management of severe acute malnutrition in children under 5 years through the lens of health care workers in two rural South African hospitals

Moise Muzigaba, Brian van Wyk, Thandi Puoane
African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine | Vol 10, No 1 | a1547 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/phcfm.v10i1.1547 | © 2018 Moise Muzigaba, Brian van Wyk, Thandi Puoane | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 21 June 2017 | Published: 30 January 2018

About the author(s)

Moise Muzigaba, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape, South Africa
Brian van Wyk, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape, South Africa
Thandi Puoane, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape, South Africa


Background: Despite the widespread implementation of the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for the management of severe malnutrition in South Africa, poor treatment outcomes for children under 5 years are still observed in some hospitals, particularly in rural areas.
Objective: To explore health care workers’ perceptions about upstream and proximal factors contributing to poor treatment outcomes for severe acute malnutrition in two district hospitals in South Africa.
Methods: An explorative descriptive qualitative study was conducted. Four focus group discussions were held with 33 hospital staff (senior clinical and management staff, and junior clinical staff) using interview guide questions developed based on the findings from an epidemiological study that was conducted in the same hospitals. Qualitative data were analysed using the framework analysis.
Findings: Most respondents believed that critical illness, which was related to early and high case fatality rates on admission, was linked to a web of factors including preference for traditional medicine over conventional care, gross negligence of the child at household level, misdiagnosis of severe malnutrition at the first point of care, lack of specialised skills to deal with complex presentations, shortage of patient beds in the hospital and policies to discharge patients before optimal recovery. The majority believed that the WHO guidelines were effective and relatively simple to implement, but that they do not make much difference among severe acute malnutrition cases that are admitted in a critical condition. Poor management of cases was linked to the lack of continuity in training of rotating clinicians, sporadic shortages of therapeutic resources, inadequate staffing levels after normal working hours and some organisational and system-wide challenges beyond the immediate control of clinicians.
Conclusion: Findings from this study suggest that effective management of paediatric severe acute malnutrition in the study setting is affected by a multiplicity of factors that manifest at different levels of the health system and the community. A verificatory study is encouraged to collaborate these findings.


Severe malnutrition; South Africa; Treatment; factors; Clinical outcomes; Rural hospitals; paediatric


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